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Mariners announce social justice initiatives, but questions remain

the Mariners need to address concerns of the present alongside the future

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Two months ago, at the height of the calls for racial justice and equality that reverberated from corner to corner across the nation, baseball teams found themselves in unfamiliar territory: with Black players in the league joining the calls for justice, teams could no longer in good conscience uphold the “stick to sports” mantra that had dictated official communications for so long. As Black Lives Matter signs cropped up on websites, t-shirts, and reader-boards across the nation, not saying anything became more of a political statement than saying something. And so teams drafted their own “Black Lives Matter” statements for social media and donned t-shirts and put “BLM” on pitching mounds and bases and posted black squares on #BlackOutTuesday.

The Mariners responded by elevating the voices of their Black players, both on social media and in a panel discussion hosted by broadcaster Dave Sims where players were able to share their experiences with racism in this country. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so, and pay special heed to the story Kyle Lewis tells. It is appalling to know that incidents like what Lewis describes—the kind of hateful, blatant, can’t-be-both-sidesed racism that some would like to pretend vanished in this country post-Civil Rights movement—are still part of the lived Black experience in 2020; as non-Black people, it is crucial to bear witness to these stories and honor the experience of the person sharing it, to allow these stories to shape our understanding of the world as it is, and not as we wish it may be.

However, we wondered in the days following these initial statements, how were the Mariners going to back up these words? The Mariners have the league’s largest concentration of Black players, a fact they’ve proudly touted in the past, but one that also calls for the team to stand even more strongly and vocally behind those players. While words are undeniably powerful, how were the Mariners going to transform these words into concrete, actionable items that actively addressed the injustices that face Black Americans?

We examined various action items we wanted to see in this piece, which has been pinned to our front page since early June. Now, at the tail end of July, the Mariners have announced a series of initiatives that attempt to address the above questions. They include:

  • An expansion to the team’s arm of the Diverse Business Partners program, created by MLB over two decades ago, which aims to increase opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses. The Mariners have pledged to double what they spend with women- and minority-owned businesses, although without a baseline of what they spent previously, this number lacks context.
  • A Diversity Fellowship program: Something other teams have done for a while—the Red Sox have a David Ortiz fellowship, for example—the Mariners will now join other teams in creating two paid internships for candidates of diverse backgrounds who want to work in baseball. Programs like these are already making an impact in baseball—the TIDES diversity report card for 2019 actually gives MLB an A- for racial diversity in hiring. The Mariners certainly have room to improve on that front—they had only five Vice Presidents or higher listed on the report who are women or people of color, and no African-Americans. For contrast, the Braves had three African-Americans at the VP level or above; the Astros had four, and the Nationals three.
  • Community impact grants: “The Mariners will make annual grants to organizations that promote racial justice and social equity through policy, advocacy and community-based initiatives. Grants will be awarded annually over the next five years. Further details about the program will be announced at a later time.”
  • The On BASE Hometown Nine: The most extensive of the Mariners’ initiatives, the “Hometown Nine” program will, each year, select a cohort of nine incoming eighth graders who want to play baseball and softball but lack the resources to do so, and fund that student’s sports-related expenses throughout their high school careers. Additionally, that student will be partnered with a Mariners player to provide sports-centered mentorship, along with Front Office staff to provide academic, professional, and social support, in order to help that student succeed both on the field and off of it. From the Mariners’ release:

“The Hometown Nine aims to create a pipeline of diverse players by addressing a major barrier to elite play—the high cost associated with select baseball. By underwriting these costs, the Mariners hope to close the “play gap,” diversify high school, collegiate and professional baseball and introduce youth to positive career mentors.”

Programs like this are instrumental in creating access to baseball for players of diverse backgrounds. Since 2006, MLB has been building a series of urban youth academies across the US—the first was in Compton, CA, followed four years later by one in Houston, and two years after that, one in New Orleans, a city with both a large Black population and no MLB team. Programs in DC, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Dallas soon followed, with planned programs in Chicago, San Francisco, and the Bronx to come. These academies have created a pipeline for diverse talent to flow into MLB—Chicago Cubs 2020 first-round pick Ed Howard played at one, and a top prospect for 2021, Ian Moller from Iowa, attended programs set up by MLB for diverse players despite not having one in his home state. Joining Moller in top high school prospects of color is an impressive list of potential first-round talent including RHP Christian Little (Missouri), OF Braylon Bishop (Arkansas), OF Tyree Reed (California), Izaac Pacheco (Texas), and SS Jordan Lawlar (Texas). OF Malakhi Knight, while not currently projected in the top 25, hails from Marysville, WA. Thanks to the efforts of the Mariners, the Seattle area can soon start contributing even more players to a more diverse baseball future.

While the Mariners are to be praised for these efforts, especially the long-term commitment of the Hometown Nine program, significant questions brought up in our earlier piece remain. Specifically, in examining the relationship between the team and the Seattle Police Department, as we wrote then:

The Mariners organization donates to the Seattle Police Foundation and their Director of Security, Jessica Reid-Bateman, sits on the Seattle Police Foundation board. When the Mariners play in front of fans again, the fans will enter T-Mobile Park through gates that are staffed with uniformed, off-duty Seattle Police Department Officers and King County Sheriff’s Deputies. Fans will roam the concourses alongside these officers, and traffic will be directed by them at the game’s end. These officers will stand guard in the bullpens and dugouts, protecting the players from unruly fans. They’ll guard the parking lots where the player’s expensive cars are parked. And once a Black player leaves the protected environs of T-Mobile Park, there’s little to stop an officer from pulling them over for the crime of being a Black man driving an expensive car.

Police brutality was the inciting incident for the wave of protests that swept across our nation this summer, and until the team reckons with that institution, their gestures towards equality will be incomplete. The message from Black players, including some of their own employees, expresses fear and frustration over the relationship between police officers and themselves, their family, their friends. Committing to making positive change in the future is great, but a commitment must also be made to change now, and answering the concerns of the players whose voices they have been all too willing to amplify.